Thursday, February 24, 2005

Welcome to Nowheresville USA

A fascinating article from Sunday's Observer about the "exurban" sprawl of American cities.

The feature's author Tristram Hunt looks at this worrying trend from several perspectives: the soulless and identikit nature of these developments, the political bias of their residents ("exurbia represents the amorphous heartland of George W Bush's conservatism") and the absence of any form of community and social responsibility (in this latter respect they seem to be like some kind of Thatcherite vision of the future made real).

There's not the space in Britain for development and growth to take place on anything like the same scale, I don't think, but all the same Hunt is keen to stress that the American example should provide a valuable lesson: "Traditionally, British policymakers are all too easily drawn to American innovations. But my time in Phoenix has shown the United States pursuing a model we desperately need to avoid: depopulating downtowns, ravaged countryside, unsustainable energy consumption, social and racial segmentation and a sprawling exurbia that is retreating unrelentingly into the future."

Thankfully (and this is something Hunt doesn't mention) there seems to be a concern not to neglect city centres and inner-city areas when it comes to the development of either housing or, in the case of Birmingham most obviously, shops. The problem here is of a different nature - gentrification forcing existing residents out and pricing many first-time buyers well out of the market. It's not just good quality city centre housing that's needed - it needs to be affordable, too.

We've got it half right, though, and seemingly aren't pursuing an ill-conceived policy of letting the nucleus of our cities crumble whilst their boundaries expand ever further - for the moment, at least.

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